How to Apologize: A Public Service Announcement

It’s a little ironic that apologia, the Greek root of the word “apology,” basically means self-defense. Perhaps that’s also the root of what appears to be widespread confusion about what constitutes an apology. Jumping into the breach, I offer a public-service announcement in the hope of helping to set that right.

An apology is something communicated to a person one has somehow wronged, slighted, or otherwise harmed, expressing acknowledgment and remorse, taking steps to restore right relationship when the caring, openness, and connection between people have been damaged.

An apology is an offering to the person who has been offended, insulted, or damaged by one’s words or actions. If you are the one offering an apology, benefits may accrue to you: forgiveness, restoration of relationship, a feeling of having done what is possible to right a wrong. But apology is for the one who was wronged, and not primarily for the person who transgressed.

Here are some things an apology is not:

A self-justification, putting forward what you hope will be a convincing argument about why you had no choice but to wrong the other person, driven by the hope of being forgiven without actually taking responsibility.

A quick “Sorry! What can I say?” and change of subject designed to avoid having to feel your own embarrassment or shame or the other person’s pain. It’s a challenge for some people to apologize at all, because being seen as wrong instantly launches them into self-punishment mode. It’s understandable to want to end that, but the real impact is make the encounter all about your own feelings rather than to focus on the person who is actually owed a sincere apology.

A putative apology that actually places the blame on the other: “I’m sorry you felt that way.”

There’s no single best formula for crafting a meaningful apology, but these are the steps that have worked for me:

  1. Tell the person you know you have hurt (or upset, or insulted, or whatever) them and you would be grateful for a chance to talk. Say you really want to understand their feelings. If this is a mutual apology situation (e.g., you and your partner both said or did hurtful things to each other), make it clear that you’d like each of you to hear the other out with equal attention.
  2. Set your groundrules: If this is a one-directional apology, you to the person you wronged, you will listen with an open heart and mind to that person’s account of the experience and the feelings it stimulated. No comment, contradiction, or defensiveness: just listening.
  3. If this is a mutual apology, each person will have an uninterrupted opportunity to describe the experience in question and the feelings that were stimulated by it. The other person should do all possible to listen with an open heart and mind, recognizing that each person’s experience is different, that each experience is made of multiple stories, not a single right and wrong. As with a one-directional apology, just listen.
  4. If you are making a one-directional apology, you now mirror back to the other person what you heard, being sure to say that you are open to correction if you misheard in any way. You are aiming for an account of the other person’s thoughts and feelings that satisfies that person as true to their experience.
  5. If this is a mutual apology, both parties take turns mirroring back, accepting correction as it is offered, until both feel fairly represented.
  6. In a one-directional apology, having heard and understood the feelings of the person who was wronged, you then offer a sincere and specific apology. For example, “I’m so sorry the way I said that felt insulting. I feel terrible for hurting you. I wish I’d never said it. I will do my best to learn from this experience. Please forgive me.” Then you give the other person a moment to consider your request. You may receive a “Yes,” or you may need to ask if there is more that person needs from you before forgiveness is possible, and continue the process.
  7. In a mutual apology, both parties take turns apologizing and asking for forgiveness, refining the exchange until everyone feels complete.

The Hebrew month of Elul has begun, the time when we do our cheshbon hanefesh/soul inventory, reviewing the year past to see if repair in the fabric of relationship (with ourselves, others, the Divine) is needed to prepare for the next year, and taking steps to effect it. When this month comes around, it always reminds me of a conversation I had with Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank of blessed memory, in the first Elul I knew him. My relationship with family members felt broken beyond repair. I had been reading about the High Holy Days as a time of reorientation and redemption, but I had already tried everything in my power to set things right and was refused. I shared with David a list of what had been done to me. “Do I have to forgive them?” I asked. His reply: “Did they ask for forgiveness?” When I answered no, he said that in the tradition, I had no such obligation, and that was a relief.

There’s a spiritual science of forgiveness that has emerged from countless years of t’shuvah (the process of repentance and reorientation undertaken at this time of year). For example, if you have wronged someone and offer a sincere apology and some form of restorative action three times, yet the person refuses to forgive, you are absolved of the need to apologize further. It is a wise policy to avoid installing permanent guilt, which leads to wallowing and self-punishment rather than healing.

I’m astounded at the expressions of forgiveness, often unbidden, of which injured people are capable, even sometimes extending to forgiving the police officer who has harmed your child. I am familiar with some of the literature of forgiveness, making the point that holding a grudge can be damaging, that extending forgiveness can lighten the suffering of the wronged. Many cultures create formal rituals of apology and forgiveness embodying lived wisdom, acknowledging both vulnerabilities and responsibilities, and clearly, that often sustains those seeking or offering forgiveness. But speaking for myself alone, I don’t think I’m up to the spectacular and heartbreaking acts of forgiveness I have seen, no matter how in awe I am of them. For now, I am applying what I have learned about apology to the ordinary transgressions threaded through most human lives.

I recognize that there are also situations in which power differentials are so great that ordinary apology is meaningless. Even the hypotheticals beggar imagination. What apology that would make a difference could the Enbridge Corporation offer to the people whose water supply and lives have been so cruelly disrupted by the Line 3 pipeline? Their only meaningful option would be to halt construction, leave Indigenous lands, and redirect their resources to abundant restitution. Just so, between individuals, some betrayals may be unforgivable.

Or there may be a type of forgiveness that forecloses future relationship: even without an apology from you, I’m going to accept that when you hurt me, you were expressing your own brokenness. I will do my best to let it go for both our sakes; but I no longer wish to know you. I draw a line under the relationship.

Most of our lives offer frequent opportunity for ordinary apology. Someone breaks a promise; someone loses composure and says hurtful things; someone violates a confidence; someone damages something borrowed from another. Everyone makes mistakes and missteps. Without apology and forgiveness, life degrades into an obstacle course, leaving us to avoid, evade, and wire around, casting a pall over our days.

Among the myriad life skills I believe every person should learn, apology stands out for its power to heal, connect, and bring relief. If you know anyone who might make good use of a refresher course in apology, please share this with them.

Bill Henderson, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”